To understand the world and the spirit of man in it; to understand the nature and the worth of religion to man; to understand how, if there is no religion, the world becomes the darkest dungeon and the unbeliever the most unfortunate of creatures; to grasp what opens the secret sign of this universe and saves man’s soul from the darkness, read this allegory:
Once upon a time, there are two brothers who set off on a long journey together. One is self-indulgent and clever. The other is self-disciplined and wise. After a while they come to a fork in their road where they see a wise old man. They ask him which way to take. He tells them that the right fork requires obligatory observance of the law which governs both roads, but that this burden of observance brings with it a certain security and happiness; while the left fork promises a certain kind of freedom it represents also certain danger and distress. Now the choice is yours, says the old man.
On hearing this, the well-disciplined brother, by relying on God, takes the right fork saying that he accepts dependence on law and order. The other brother takes the left fork just for the sake of freedom. Seemingly, he is comfortable but in truth he feels no tranquillity inside. He reaches a desert. Suddenly he hears the terrible sound of a beast, about to attack him. He runs away and, happening to come across one, jumps down a dried well which is sixty metres deep. Half-way down, he tumbles upon some branches of a tree and grabs on to these to save himself from falling further. He also notices that the tree protruding from the wall of the well has two forks. He hangs down from the branches. Meanwhile, two mice, one white and the other black, are gnawing away at the two roots. The man looks up and sees that the beast is still there. He looks down and there is a horrible dragon almost at his feet, with its large mouth gaping to receive. Having time to do so, the man looks more closely at the wall of the well and notices that it is all covered with labouring insects. He looks again at the tree. It is actually a fig tree but it is a miracle of a tree in that it has a great variety of fruits growing on it, such as walnuts and pomegranates.
There, hanging in the well, he cannot understand that all that has happened to him is in any way special or meaningful, that the scene and the events upon it cannot be merely coincidental. That there should be, must be, some secret to it all, that behind the scene and the events there must stand an arranger and doer of all-none of this, alas, even occurs to him.
Now although this man is well aware of the danger all around him, he gets used to his state of suspense, more or less, and pretends to himself that he is in a garden, having a nice time, eating all kinds of fruits for free but which, it will turn out, are poisonous and harmful to him to consume in this way.
In some of the sacred sayings, God addresses mankind. The meaning of one of those sayings is: I will treat my servant in the way he thinks of Me. This wretched man in the well sees every event that befalls him as no more than itself, as having no further weight or significance and, for him, so it is. He does not die but he does not live well either. He persists merely in an agony of suspense.
Let us now recall the other brother. He is the wiser of the two and, because well-disciplined, not suffering anxieties. He always thinks of the good; affirms the law, and feels himself to be secure and free within it. Whenever, on his journey, he enters a garden and comes across ruined or ugly things in it, he is able to turn his mind to that which is good and beautiful. His brother cannot and does not do the same; he has concerned himself with evil and therefore cannot find ease in such a garden. The wise one lives according to the saying: Take the good not the evil. He is therefore generally happy with everything.
On his way he too reaches a desert, just as his brother did, and the same beast shows up. He too is afraid but not as much as his brother, because he is sure that the beast must be in the service of a certain master. This disciplined man also jumps down a well that happens to be there and, half-way down, catches hold of the branches of a little tree. He too notices the pair of mice gnawing at the two roots of the tree. Looking down, he sees the dragon and, up above, the beast still waiting for him. Just like his brother, he finds this suspense a strange situation to be in. But because he is wise and self-disciplined, he infers that all these strange happenings are arranged by someone, and constitute a sign. He thinks he is not alone and that he is being watched and examined by someone. He understands that he is being directed and guided in some way.
He is curious about the one who arranged all these events and asks: Who is it that desires to make me know him? Even in his curiosity he is patient and self-disciplined, and so this curiosity changes into a sort of love for Him who arranges all these events. And this love causes him a desire to open the secret sign of these events and that desire drives him to be approved by the owner of the sign.
He observes that the tree from which he is suspended is a fig tree but one that bears almost every kind of fruit. He is no longer afraid; he understands that this tree is actually a sort of catalogue of samples of the fruits the owner has. Otherwise, one tree would not bear so great a variety of fruits as this one does. He desires more earnestly and the key to the secret is inspired in him. He declares:
Oh Owner of all this scene and these events, I am your servant and I desire your approval and I desire to know you.
Following this prayer, the wall of the well changes into a door to a wonderful garden. The dragon and the beast become two servants inviting him in. The beast even changes into a horse for him to ride on.
Now, let us compare the positions of these two brothers and see how good brings with it good and evil causes evil:
The unfortunate traveller who took the left way, the way of self-trust and self-willed freedom, is about to fall into the mouth of the dragon; he is continually anxious. He suffers loneliness and considers himself a prisoner facing the attacks of wild beasts. Furthermore, he adds more to this distress, eating apparently delicious but actually poisonous fruits which are only presented as samples, not intended to be consumed for their own sake. This unfortunate one changes his day into darkness; he himself does injustice, changing his situation into a hell-like one.
In contrast, the traveller who took the right way is invited to a fruitful garden with servants all .around him. He studies every strange incident in awe, and enjoys himself. He does not eat up the fruits on the fig tree, only samples them, curious as to why they should be there at all-which is how they are intended to be used.
The other is just like a man who, by not being content with what has been served for him and intoxicating himself with alcoholic drink, denies his favoured situation in a summer garden surrounded by friends, and instead imagines himself to be among wild beasts in winter time, and complains thereof. He does himself injustice and deserves no mercy. The brother who took the right way, the way that accepts trustingly what is given and observes the law, sees and accepts the whole reality and for him it is beautiful. In doing this he respects the One who possesses reality, and that is why this brother is deserving of mercy. By this we may understand, at least in part, the meaning of the Qur’anic phrase: Know that evil is from yourself but goodness is from God.
When we reflect upon the differences between the two brothers we see that the inner-self of one prepared a kind of hell-like situation for him, corresponding to his own attitude to reality, whereas the other’s potential goodness, positive intention and good nature led him to a very favoured and happy situation.
Now, I say to my own inner-self as well as to the inner-self of anyone who has read thus far:
If you desire to be like the luckier of the two brothers, follow the guidance of the Qur’an. The details of the allegory could be explained at very great length, but the gist of it, roughly, is this:
One of the brothers is a believer who is good-hearted and the other is a blasphemous unbeliever. Of two ways the one on the right is the way of the Qur’an and faith, whereas the other is the way of unbelief and heresy. The garden on the way is human society and civilization which has in it both good and evil, cleanliness and pollution. The wise one is he who acts according to the law of this road and so travels peacefully.
The desert in the story is the earth, and the beast who turns up unawares is death. The well is life and the body of man, and sixty metres in depth because that is our average life span. The tree in the well is life itself, the two mice gnawing its roots are day and night. The dragon in the well is the opening to the hereafter and, for a believer, becomes a door to the Garden. The insects on the walls of the well are the troubles people face on this earth. However, these troubles are but little warnings for a believer, to remind him of God. And the fruits on the tree, as we have already indicated, are samples from the blessings of the hereafter.
(There is only one tree in the well but there are various fruits on it. This shows the seal of divinity whose unique virtue is to create everything out of one thing and to change everything into one thing, to make various plants and fruits from one soil only; to create all living things from one drop of water; to make a simple skin for each species from a variety of foods, to nourish and sustain all alike living things and make all parts of body from a simple food.)
To return to the allegory, the sign shows the secret will and purpose of God in creating; this sign is opened with faith and there the key is:
God, there is no god save God. God, there is no god save Him.
For one of the brothers, the mouth of the dragon changes into a door to the Garden. For the other, as for all unbelievers, the grave is the door to a place of trouble, the belly of a dragon, whereas for believers it is the door to the eternal Garden which is the blessing of God for the faithful followers of the Qur’an.
The beast changes into an obedient servant. This means that, for unbelievers, death is a painful detachment from loved ones, a kind of imprisonment after leaving (for them) the paradise-like earth. For believers on the other hand, it is just like going forward to meet friends and companions, it is like going into their eternal home. It is for them a formal invitation to pass into the eternal gardens from the prison of the earth, a kind of retirement from the burden of life.
In sum, the one who chooses the transient life as his aim puts himself into hell even though he stays in what appears to him paradise on earth. By contrast, the one who aims at the eternal life will find peace and happiness in both worlds. Despite all troubles, he still thanks God and will patiently conclude his stay on the earth which, as he properly comes to understand, is merely a waiting room opening up to heaven.